We in the media are accused of focusing on personalities instead of issues, or being out to get a certain public official, all the time. Just read the letters to the editor in the Review, or better yet, in the Wednesday Journal. Sometimes we deserve the criticism. Sometimes we don’t. Like most of you, we hold ourselves to high standards.
In a recent 60 Minutes interview, President Obama reflected on what he called the “coarseness” of public discourse, and he made the comment, “Our problem is how to make civility interesting.”
That really struck me.
But it’s not just the media that has a problem with sticking to the issues. Watch politicians, at the local level or from the visitors’ gallery in Congress, and chances are you’ll observe someone getting personal with someone else.
I’m more familiar with the churches in town than with government. Civility often breaks down there, too.
What is it about civility that makes it something that most of us are in favor of – in government, the press, churches, our marriages – but is often so hard to achieve?
When we are attacked, we have two responses hardwired into us – fight or flight. So what do you do if you are a village council member or in a church meeting, and someone responds to your idea by questioning your integrity rather than focusing on the idea?
One possibility is to fight back, either by getting defensive or by attacking the attacker. Been there before? I’d wager that 75 percent of fights between husbands and wives go down this road. What begins as a question about how to spend the last $200 in the checking account morphs into a verbal war about who’s a spendthrift and who’s a tightwad.
The alternative to fighting seems to be fleeing. Reference the recent news about the youth commission here in town. I’m outta here. It happens in our churches all the time. Someone feels shamed and the next Sunday they are in another church. Or, if they don’t physically leave, they withdraw emotionally. After having gotten clobbered by an emotional bully, they vow that they are never going to take the risk of saying anything again.
There is, however, a third option. Although we might be genetically wired to respond to a perceived threat by either fighting or fleeing, there is an alternative that comes from outside of us. It’s a big part of what growing up is all about. It’s about gaining the perspective that what feels like a Super Bowl competition in which everything is on the line is really nothing more than a backyard pick up game … in the grand scheme of things. It’s about gaining the ability to care as much about the common good.
Maturity. Civility. The ability to be self-critical. We’re not born with these qualities. They have to be learned. They have to be nurtured in families and reinforced in society.
Character assassination is a cheap trick, but it can be entertaining. That was President Obama’s point. Civility isn’t sensational.
Let’s resolve to do things. Let’s commit ourselves to sticking to the issues, even when we feel attacked personally, and let’s encourage each other to call “foul” anytime we see that cheap trick being played on anyone else.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.